Review Summary: 52 minutes, 10 yearsReturn of 13 Hedgehogs (MxBx Singles 2000-2009)
MxBx Singles 2000-2009
Anyone who ever felt short of second helpings from Tokyo’s one-of-a-kind noise/grind export can count themselves contented with this one: Return of 13 Hedgehogs
is as extensive and exhaustive a search for whatever the hell a Melt-Banana single should sound like as one could hope for. It’s also a great selection from the band in their prime; Melt-Banana never had a ‘golden era’ - they hit their A-game on 1998’s Charlie
and have never dropped the ball since - but there’s a special quality about their ‘00s work, when the core duo of vocalist Yako and guitarist Ichirou Agata were still backed up by the thunderous tones of bassist Rika Hamamoto. Although the band have been relatively sparing with their full-lengths since 2003’s classic Cell-Scape
, they were relentlessly productive in between these releases, both as a live act and as serial collaborators. Return of 13 Hedgehogs
is testament to this, a vast offering drawn from splits with various artists (including The Locust and Fantomas), obscure standalone releases, and the Initial T.
EP. It’s both a convenient showcase of their lesser-known material and a treasure trove for anyone yet to explore beyond their LPs.
Unusually for Melt-Banana, there’s an elephant in the room here (albeit a particularly clamorous one): 52 minutes of this band is quite frankly far too much for anyone in their right mind to process in a single listen. For all their gleeful excesses in other areas, Melt-Banana’s LPs are uniformly tactful in not overstaying their welcome. Such considerations are absent here, though admittedly irrelevant to its scope as an anthology. Return of 13 Hedgehogs
’ sequencing preserves the original tracklists from each standalone release, each of which is presented in chronological order: it kicks off with their 2001 split with Three Studies For A Crucifixion and concludes with 2009’s Initial T.
. As such, the nuances of each release’s transitions are carried over, but the compilation of a whole is a disparate barrage; for all it’s cute to hear “Grave In The Hole (Pitfall Fits A Bit)”’s whiplash tradeoffs between goofy ambience and straight-up grind sublimate into “Capital 1060 Hospital”’s space-age delay skit, the bottom line is that there are too many ideas played at too high an intensity for this release to be remotely digestible as a holistic experience.
As such, Return of 13 Hedgehogs
is essentially a 29-song content dump that will run halfhearted listeners into the ground, while presenting fans with the challenge of reconfiguring its tracklist for their own ends. The 29 tracks in question chart out the full spectrum of the band’s sound in bitesize cuts, several of which offer an interesting peak at ideas that would have sounded misplaced on their full-lengths. For instance, “Monkey Man” and “Love Song” are goofball punk songs that veer disarmingly close to conventional territory. The band clearly have a ton of fun here, and these tracks stand out a lighter punctuations among the more frantic numbers. On that note, some tracks do come surprisingly close to whatever a Melt-Banana ‘single’ (an joyously ludicrous concept, even for the tracks that actually were released as singles) would sound like: “Sweeper”, “Pain In Ash” and “Loop Nebula” all present a more palatable version of band’s classic sound, less overbearing but equally distinctive. “Sweeper” is a mid-tempo banger and as close as we will ever get to a Yako-fronted singalong, with a terrific groove to match, while “Loop Nebula” keeps the bpm count high and backs itself up with one of her most exuberant and inviting performances to date. I’m not convinced that this user-friendly mode of Melt-Banana would necessarily be the best starting point for newcomers, but it’s certainly a refreshing twist. It’s also easy to pick out the roots of Fetch
’s melodic layerings on these tracks; the compilation’s tail-end certainly makes more sense as a precursor to that record than 2007’s Bambi’s Dilemma
, both chronologically and stylistically.
In sharp contrast, some moments feel like worthwhile revisions of the band’s flashfire ‘90s grind days. “About”, “Puddle, Float” and “Cat In Red” are more creatively layered than anything on, say, Speak Squeak Creak
but they’re far more evocative of that album’s spirit than anything else the band came up with twixt 2000 and 2009. The band’s pre-Charlie
works were done something of a disservice by Steve Albini’s dry production and recording styles, which failed to capture the more visceral experience of the band’s live show. As such, it’s a joy to hear this sound showcased to its fullest here: the quickfire blasts that kick off “About” and the ***ing wrecking ball
of a bassline that drops around half a minute into “Cat In Red” are both the stuff of Melt-Banana classics.
Finally and inevitably, there are the oddballs that feel destined for a non-album release from the get-go. “52 Hands, 36 Possibilities” is the clearest outlier here, less an actual song than a protracted dismembering of a piano overlaid with Yako’s best impersonation of a reverb-besotted stoner cat. Magical stuff. More accessible, though equally wry, is their cover of the 1960 Italian pop song “Tintarella Di Luna”. Yako is infamous for her English language lyric and delivery as is; here she gives Italian similar treatment over a bright hardcore jam makes, coining a perfect hidden gem. Also notable is “Capital 1060 Hospital”, which evokes the jarring ambient outings interspersed throughout Bambi’s Dilemma
but presents this sound in a kookier, more intense form. These tracks are the icing on the cake, a set of loveable showstoppers that make the challenge of trawling through an extensive compilation thoroughly worthwhile.
Categorisation aside, few of these tracks pack the same knockout value as the highlights on the band’s major releases, but - crucially - all of them bring the same balance of off-the-wall intensity and tongue-in-cheek levity that made them so fun to begin with. In many ways, this is the only thing that matters here; Return of 13 Hedgehogs
will hardly ameliorate extant sticking points for skeptical listeners, but for returning fans there’s plenty worth hearing here. These tracks add an extra layer to the band’s studio discography, affirming the evolution of their sound while catering to the attention spans great and small with a plethora of cheap thrills. With the Melt-Banana’s long awaited follow-up to Fetch
lurking just over the horizon, there are far worse ways to touch base with the band’s fundaments than taking the plunge with Return of 13 Hedgehogs